Cernam: Capturing and Preserving Online Data

Cernam is a Dublin-based startup which specialises in the recovery and preservation of Internet data for evidence. With a ever-growing part of our daily lives being spent online, it follows that the search for evidence in civil and criminal actions will require the gleaning of online content concerning the relevant parties.

Owen O’ Connor is the Managing Director of Cernam. With a background in corporate security and corporate investigations work, Owen watched activity in this area rise dramatically, and identified the supply of reliable digital content as evidence as an un-met need that Cernam could meet. There is, he says, “really a need for a whole tool set to elevate online content to the level of evidence.”

“As it stands today, it’s very commonplace to have email data introduced as evidence in courts, particularly in law suits. It’s fairly common to have information from PC’s or mobile devices introduced. Around those areas, the tools, the methodologies, the standards are quite well-defined. When you come to dealing with web content, social media content, any type of online applications, it’s complete wild west territory.

“The technology has been built up over the last ten years, focused on email. It has been quite a dynamic area, there has been quite a few very large merger and acquisition transactions in this space where people like Symantec and EMC have bought up companies, but what they’ve bought is a capability to handle email. When they come to handling social media content, or online message boards, or things like records, they struggle because the technology fit doesn’t map directly across.

“Currently, what people are doing is using screenshots, using printouts, which wouldn’t fly in 2011 in terms of email. You would never go into court with a screenshot of the CEO’s email and say, “well there’s a copy of it, what more do you want?” You would go into court with the original email collected, preserved and presented in a very specific way. And currently both those methodologies and technologies don’t exist for online content.”

Owen and Cernam set out, “from first principles really” to build a technology which could accurately and reliably capture and preserve the vast array of online data out there. There is no room for error, as at the time of recovery of the information, it is rarely known precisely which evidence will be required.

“With an email, you’ve always got the option of going back to the server or restoring things from backup tapes, you’ve got second chances. There are no second chances in the online area.

“We assume that the information is gone the first time we see it. We have to have absolutely the best possible, most trustworthy copy from day one, which might not be needed for five years. It could be five years before the law suit or case comes through the court system, and that information is challenged and required in a tribunal, in a law suit, in some sort of civil process.”

Naturally, the more complex the site from which Cernam seeks to extract data, the greater the technical challenge it presents. Owen sees this as an opportunity, and as a validation of the work that has gone into Cernam.

“There are issues for us in terms of technology and that’s partly the reason that it’s such an interesting area. When we look at Google, for instance, your PC running Chrome that is connected to Google Maps or Google search is actually speaking a different protocol than it is connecting to say, The Irish Times site at

“Google in particular are pushing new file formats, new network protocols, new technologies at a much deeper level, and those are marvellous for us, those issues validate some of the technical decisions and the architecture decisions that we’ve made.

“This was something that we knew was coming, and that we couldn’t make assumptions for instance that a web page was composed purely of http. We knew going forward, that things were getting more complex. We followed this area quite closely so we were seeing some of this technology when Google was pushing it out as academic papers.”

Hand in hand with the explosion of Internet use, is the growing amount of time being spent on social networking. The next challenge for Cernam is to be able to accurately tap in to the huge pool of data on sites like Twitter and Facebook.

“Where we go from here is in vertical integrations for things like Twitter and Facebook. The kind of scenario where Facebook evidence comes up particularly is in say an internal harassment case or bullying, that type of issue. You’ve got an employee who has made a complaint, and as part of making that complaint they’re willing to provide access to their account in order to validate this.

“Twitter is sort of a nice example. We need to do a Twitter-aware capture tool. If I’m looking at a Twitter message and it’s relevant to my case, but it’s a reply to someone else’s message then I need to also go and get the original message so that I have that context. Or if it references someone else or it’s a retweet of someone else’s content, I want to get the original content so that I have all of that later, that’s the kind of simple application awareness that we need to build in.”

Cernam is currently in University College Dublin’s NovaUCD incubator programme, which has helped, “enormously”, says Owen.

“There really wasn’t a strong viable alternative for us, the alternative of taking an office on Merrion Square and working out of the basement and hoping we could take over the second floor,l and the third floor if we needed to; that kind of lease negotiation really wouldn’t have been an option for us because we couldn’t tell where we would be staff wise and space wise.

“The bigger picture, the more strategic stuff has been fantastic. We get huge support from NovaUCD themselves, particularly Ciara Leonard and Micéal Whelan, both phenomenally useful.

“There’s a huge amount of stuff that we don’t have to worry about. We’ve managed to keep our overheads down in those terms far better than we would have in another facility. We would have to have somebody looking after our server room for instance; here Nova UCD takes care of our network connectivity, our phone systems, our voicemail systems, our Internet connections, our server room, plus all of our meeting rooms, facilities; it’s a fantastic set up.”

Additional material supplied by Tom Murphy

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